Email Preference Centers: How to Keep Subscribers (and Improve Your Email Marketing ROI)

Mike Arsenault
July 21, 2021
minute read

Think about this: not every person who unsubscribes from your email list actually wants to unsubscribe.

Some of them simply want fewer emails from you.

But, without a subscriber preference center, subscribers are presented with the painful dilemma of choosing between getting all of your emails or getting none of your emails.

If it’s the only way to reduce the number of emails they get, many people—maybe even most people—will choose not to receive any.

That’s uncomfortable for your subscribers and bad for your bottom line.

A subscriber preference center improves the experience for your subscribers and ensures that you only lose subscribers who truly want to unsubscribe. Here’s how:

Your subscriber preference center gives subscribers a happy medium between staying subscribed and unsubscribing, and more control over their experience with your email program.

Obviously, this can reduce your unsubscribe rate because people can simply choose to receive fewer emails rather than opting out altogether.

However, reducing your unsubscribe rate doesn’t always mean that your email marketing ROI automatically goes up.

Let’s talk about why that is, how to build your subscriber preference center, and (most importantly) how to make sure that your subscriber preference center drives an increase in email marketing revenue.

What is a subscriber preference center?

First, a subscriber preference center is a dashboard where subscribers can customize the email content they get from you.

The subscriber preference center enables existing subscribers to opt-out of certain emails while continuing to receive the ones they want. This gives people a way to stay engaged with your brand, without being overwhelmed by their inbox.

It also creates a more personalized email experience. And it also helps improve your email marketing automation by enabling subscribers to clearly communicate which emails you should and shouldn’t send to them.

The concept is very simple. But the execution is slightly more complex. And it’s entirely possible for your subscriber preference center to reduce your email marketing revenue, even though you might retain more subscribers.

We’ll help you avoid that.

How to create a subscriber preference center that improves your email ROI

Here’s a high-level overview of how to launch your subscriber preference center:

  1. Build your subscriber preference center. We’ll focus on how to accomplish this step shortly. But it’s the natural first stage.
  2. Tell your email subscribers about your subscriber preference center. Make sure that they know how to access the subscriber preference center and how to use it.
  3. Track the appropriate email marketing metrics. Also, use your subscriber preference center as an additional data point for identifying which emails are most valuable to your subscribers.

The last two steps are the easiest (but still important).

But there are a lot of decisions to make when you create your subscriber preference center. Here’s how to make the best decisions.

Evaluate your email marketing program

The first step is to assess your email marketing program. You need to know two things before you can build a good subscriber preference center:

  1. Which type of emails you send most.

Typically, your emails will fall into one of two categories: promotions and editorial emails. Newsletters and similar emails are editorial content. Emails like a holiday sales announcement are promotions.

Count up your emails and see which type of email makes up the bulk of your sends.

  1. Which emails are most valuable for your brand.

In most cases, the emails that bring in the most revenue are promotions. However, it is possible for editorial emails to be your money makers.

Either way, you need to know which emails are generating most of your email marketing revenue. That way you can build a subscriber preference center that works for your brand and your subscribers.

  1. How many distinct categories of promotional emails you have.

The most common example here is different product lines that often have separate customer bases.

If you’re not sure if two promotional emails are from two distinct categories, consider if one promotional email would be effective without the other. You wouldn’t classify them as distinct types of promotional emails if one wouldn’t work without the other, or wouldn’t work as well.

You perform this part of the assessment to make sure that you don’t accidentally give subscribers a way to opt-out of an email that other emails may depend upon.

Knowing which emails you send most and which emails make you the most money will help you decide how you’ll allow subscribers to control the emails they get from you.

Identify the best preference center strategy

The goal here is to give subscribers the control they want, without compromising your email marketing strategy.

Simpler preference centers are easier to maintain and deliver on.

This is where many brands go wrong. It’s easy to think that offering as many options as possible would be best. But too many preference center options make it difficult to implement your preference center and execute your email marketing strategy (even though subscribers might want more options).

This operational tradeoff is the primary challenge in choosing a strategy for your subscriber preference center.  

Promotional emails drive the majority of the email marketing revenue for most brands.

However, if given the option, most subscribers will opt-out of promotional emails.

Fortunately, there’s a way to deal with this. This is the best practice for determining your subscriber preference center strategy:

  • If the majority of your emails and/or email marketing revenue comes from promotional email campaigns, allow subscribers to control how often they receive emails from you.

The caveat here is if you have multiple distinct types of promotional email campaigns that do not depend upon one another to work. To use the example from earlier, if you have two separate product lines, you can offer subscribers the ability to opt-out of promotional emails from one or the other.

But, most of the time, if your email mix is heavily skewed toward promotional emails, it’s best to let subscribers control how often they receive emails.

  • Conversely, if you send a mix of promotional and editorial emails or more editorial than promotional emails, you can allow subscribers to choose which types of emails they receive from you.

Most brands will find that the best strategy is to allow subscribers to control email frequency.

But, if you send diverse editorial content you are not so dependent on promotional emails for email revenue generation, and you can let subscribers decide which email content type they get.

However, it’s important to be aware that subscribers will often want to control which types of emails they get from you. So how you present the options in your subscriber preference center is important.

Determine the best way to present the options to your subscribers

If you’re able to give subscribers control of the email content they receive, you can simply offer a preference center with the option to opt-in or opt-out of each type of email.

On the other hand, if you’re allowing subscribers to curate your email content based on how often they get emails from you, the best way to present the options to subscribers is to offer them three frequency options:

  1. Send me everything.
  2. Send to me once per week.
  3. Send to me once per month.

This gives subscribers enough control over how many emails they get from you, without overwhelming subscribers with options or negatively impacting your bottom line too much.

Last point on this subject: it’s very important that your email service provider gives you control over which preferences you offer your subscribers.

Otherwise, your subscriber preference center might undercut your email marketing strategy simply because your ESP doesn’t allow you to set your preference center up the way you need it.

Tell your subscribers that you’ve added a subscriber preference center

The last step in the implementation process is to let subscribers know that they now have a preference center where they can control which emails they get from you or how often they get your emails.

As you probably guessed, sending an email to subscribers is the best way to inform them of their new subscriber preference center.

Keep the email simple. And give subscribers a brief description of what they can do in the preference center. That will help compel people to click-through and set their preferences in the preference center.

Additionally, you should add a link to your subscriber preference center to your email footer.

Obviously, you must keep the unsubscribe link and traditional unsubscribe pages. CAN-SPAM regulations require a direct link to an unsubscribe page.

However, the unsubscribe link isn’t just about regulatory compliance. If someone really just wants to unsubscribe from your emails, they should be able to do that by simply clicking an unsubscribe link.

If you require someone to go through the preference center to unsubscribe, they may get frustrated and mark your emails as spam, rather than unsubscribing. And that’s even worse for your sender reputation than an unsubscribe.

But, you should also put a link to the preference center in your footer to give people an opportunity to adjust which emails they get or how often they get emails rather than unsubscribing.

Bottom line: you need to let subscribers know that there’s a preference center and give them every opportunity to use the preference center instead of unsubscribing.

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Subscriber preference center examples and best practices

Even though the overall process for creating your subscriber preference center is easy to understand, it’s also easy to make certain mistakes.

But, if you follow these subscriber preference center best practices (with examples), you’ll avoid the most common mistakes and create a preference center that your subscribers will use, and that will improve your email marketing performance.

Never force people to use the preference center to unsubscribe

We already talked about it. But it’s worth restating: keep your basic unsubscribe link and classic unsubscribe pages.

If people really want to unsubscribe, let them do it easily. The last thing you need is irritated people marking your emails as spam because they don’t want to bother with a preference center.

Also, include an unsubscribe option in the subscriber preference center. Some people may want to use it.

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Ultimately, you want to retain subscribers and improve customer retention by sending excellent emails, not by making it difficult to unsubscribe.

Immediately direct new subscribers to your subscriber preference center

It’s best to give new subscribers the immediate option of setting their email preferences. That way they don’t end up using the preference center out of irritation later on.

Also, when you let people set their email preferences as soon as they subscribe to your emails, it sets expectations. And your new subscribers immediately know what emails they’re going to get from you and how often they’ll get those emails.

Offer brief explanations for each option

You may think that the options in your preference center are self-explanatory. But it’s not always as clear as you think.

A line or two of explanation goes a long way in helping people understand what they’re opting into or out of. When people don’t understand something, the default response is to opt-out.

So making sure that everything in your preference center is abundantly clear will help minimize unsubscribes.

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Make preferences optional

It may seem counterintuitive, but people are more likely to fill out a form or set preferences if most of the fields are optional.

And—just like you don’t want to force people to use the preference center to unsubscribe—you don’t want to force people into setting their preferences. If subscribers want to stick with the default preferences (be clear about what those are), let them do that.

Required fields create stress. So make the fields in your preference center optional whenever you can.

Avoid using your subscriber preference center as a data collection center

Having more customer data is better for marketing.

After all, if you can get phone numbers from your preference center, then you can build an SMS marketing database. If you’re a retailer, you could get mailing addresses for direct mail campaigns.

There’s a lot of potential. So it may be tempting to require people to add their birthday, phone number, and other minor personal information.

But asking for information automatically prompts people to wonder why you’re asking for their information. It gets worse if you don’t tell them why you’re asking for that information, because that makes people suspicious.

So, avoid asking for personal information simply because it helps you create a more complete customer profile in your CRM database.

Here’s a good filter for determining what information you ask for in the preference center:

Tell people why you’re asking for information. But explain why it benefits the subscriber in terms of email marketing.

For example, if you’re asking for a birthday, tell the subscriber that it’s so you can send them a birthday email with a discount or special birthday offer.

If you can’t explain to the subscriber how it benefits them, it may be best not to ask for that information in the subscriber preference center, or at least make offering up that information optional.

Need to collect other information from customers? You can send an email survey, if it’s relevant.

Just avoid turning your email preference center into a survey. But, feel free to ask for any information that’s actually relevant for delivering the best email experience.

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Use a single page preference center

Options are good. Too many options is bad.

Holding your preference center to a single page keeps things simple for your subscribers. If your preference center is too large, people may just avoid using it because it feels too overwhelming.

Simple checkboxes make it easy for subscribers to make selections. And a checkbox takes up very little space. So it’s a space-efficient way to design your preference center.

Also, custom fields take up a lot of space. And those custom fields where people need to type something take a lot of time. And they’re stressful because it feels like being asked to write an essay. Typically, a series of yes/no questions is better than using custom fields.

If you find that you can’t fit all the options on one page without being overcrowded, consider reducing the number of fields in your preference center, and simplifying the options.

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Thanks to technology, people have become accustomed to having control over their devices and communications.

So offering a subscriber preference center where subscribers can control their experience with your email marketing is preferable in today’s marketing environment.

If you follow our process and best practices for creating your subscriber preference center, you’ll get a more engaged subscriber base, fewer unsubscribes, and even better email performance. And you get all that for basically letting subscribers do some of the work for you.

Now is the time to get started launching your subscriber preference center.

What to do now

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Learn how to send ecommerce marketing emails that your subscribers actually want to receive (even if you don’t have a subscriber preference center yet). Want Rejoiner to handle the hard work for you? Schedule a free strategy session to learn how Rejoiner can make your email marketing more profitable.

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Mike Arsenault

Founder & CEO

For the last 10 years, Mike has worked with brands like Moosejaw, Hydroflask, Peak Design, Triumph, Hearst & Guthy Renker to provide the strategy & technology with which they use email to drive revenue growth. He's also the Founder of Rejoiner, a SaaS marketing platform built for ecommerce businesses.

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